Hazel Southam - Journalist

Stories from Austria, the beating heart of Europe's migrant crisis

In recent weeks, Austria has found itself at the beating heart of the crisis facing Europe over asylum seekers.
Some 80,000 people are expected to seek asylum in the country this year alone. That’s up from 28,000 people in 2014 and 17,000 the year before.
It is the first Western European country that migrants pass through on long overland journeys from Iraq, Afghanistan, but mostly Syria. Some 3 million Syrians have fled the country’s brutal civil war. All must begin their bid to be granted asylum at the Traiskirchen centre just outside the capital, Vienna.
Currently, some 4,800 people are housed in the former Army barracks which have played host to refugees since the 1960s. But it was only built to house 1,000 people.
The sheer numbers coming across the border from Hungary means that many are now sleeping in the offices of the police training academy nextdoor, and at least 1,500 people are sleeping in tents outside.
Amnesty International’s Heinz Pazelt recently described conditions at the camp as ‘inhumane’ and ‘shameful’.
On a recent visit to Traiskirchen, The Guardian spoke to Mohammed, a 42-year-old perfumier, who had fled his home in Aleppo when his home, business and car were bombed.
He had been at Traiskirchen with his wife and three small children for three weeks, during Austria’s heatwave, as temperatures regularly topped 38 degrees.
‘Everything was destroyed,’ he said. ‘It took us 20 days to get here, walking and by car.
‘We paid traffickers 2,000 Euros (£1,450) to get into Turkey, 500 Euros (£360) to get into Macedonia and Serbia and 1,500 Euros (£1,090) to get here.
‘We came because here, there is a police force and you can speak freely. We want to be in Austria. But Syrians are the least important people here.’
Once through Traiskirchen, asylum seekers like Mohammed face a lengthy process to discover if their application to stay in Austria will be granted. Even after that, things are difficult, as George, a 46-year-old printer also from Aleppo, has discovered.
‘I knew I had to find a way to leave Aleppo,’ said George, ‘when my five-year-old son saw an ISIS fighter kill a man in the street and eat him.’
‘Our house was on the front line in Aleppo,’ he said. ‘Bombs fell every day. There was constant shooting and snipers were a real risk.
‘Often we didn’t have electricity or water. My children ate moldy bread that they found on the street.
‘We lived in fear all the time. We didn’t know if we would live through each day. If we went out, we didn’t know if we would come back. At night we didn’t know if we would be alive in the morning.
‘But we only left Aleppo when this happened, at the bitter end.’
During a 25-minute official cessation in fighting, George piled his family into the car, picked up a plastic bag that contained their documents and fled.
By the time they reached a safe house, six hours later, the car was riddled with bullets.
But today, George and his wife Diala (35) can’t get work. ‘The children will be at peace here, but we are lost,’ he said. ‘We are not where we belong.’
Many Syrians receive support from a network of churches and Christian organisations.
‘There is a willingness to help people,’ said Dr Jutta Henner, Director of the Bible Society in Austria, which works with asylum seekers in Traiskirchen and across the country.
‘The more local people come into contact with the asylum seekers and hear their stories they learn that it was no easy decision to come or an easy journey.
‘We talk about this in churches all the time. We can help to change people’s minds about asylum seekers.’
But ahead of regional elections in Austria in September and October, the far right Freedom party is topping the polls with 29 per cent support, as Austrians say that ‘better security’, ‘foreigner problems’ and ‘asylum’ are their three greatest concerns.


About Hazel

Hazel Southam is an award-winning journalist who reports on religious affairs, international development and the environment. She has covered four G8 Summits.

She wrote for The Sunday and Daily Telegraph for 10 years. Her work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard.

Reporting assignments have taken her to places including Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Albania, Nagorno-Karabakh, Senegal and the Arctic Circle.

In the UK, she has also delivered media training to the MOD and leading businesses.

Contact Hazel